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At a Loss for Words

Flower by flower, author by author, a writer rediscovers her creative voice

Giddy. I hadn’t felt like this since the afternoon I’d met a good-looking man from my past and married him five months later. Now, five years later as I drove down a Hill Country ranch road, I felt excited to feel so excited again. Soon, I’d be in the fields, breaking a sweat, working in the July morning sunshine, moving among the flowers. I couldn’t wait!

Lately, I’d been struggling to find drive and passion within myself. Was it middle age? Laziness? The summer’s excruciating heat and drought? Trying to figure out the reasons frustrated me. I made internal matters even worse by measuring myself against a woman who years ago could write a book at her roll-top desk crowded into the living room while her two small children played, the television blared and supper simmered in the kitchen.

That woman was a much younger me.

Now my empty nest reeked of silence. Day after day, I struggled to turn out one sentence at the same desk, now tucked in a corner of my very own, tastefully decorated office. More often than not, I’d give up at the keyboard before even starting. Why bother? Sometimes, my lack of initiative drove me to tears. Something had to change.

When a close friend went in for dental surgery, I decided fresh flowers might brighten her day. On a whim, I called another friend who grows cut flowers for floral arrangements on her family farm. Did she have bouquets for sale? “Yes,” Pamela said. Mustering up some courage, I asked if I could help cut flowers with her. What I didn’t say was how I’d secretly fantasized about working in the fields and how the hard physical labor would magically transform my life. Among the flowers, I’d find renewal, inspiration and healing. Or so I thought.

Graciously, Pamela agreed. Quickly, I slathered on some sunscreen and flung on jeans, a cotton top and a gimme cap. As I cruised down the highway, I was barely aware of my foot on the accelerator—I just couldn’t get there fast enough! After a bumpy ride down the farm’s caliche road, I found Pamela and her grown daughter, Hannah Rose, already bent over knee-high zinnias that waved petaled heads of yellow, pink, lavender, red and white. I threw a long-sleeved shirt on over my top.

“Do you have an extra pair of scissors for me?” I asked, eager to start.

“Nope,” Pamela replied from beneath her wide-brimmed hat. “We’re going to cut, and you’re going to carry our bunches and put them in buckets of water.” She pointed to several black plastic containers, set at the row ends. Right away, I realized my naïveté. Inwardly, I chastised myself. How dare I presume that I could just pick up scissors and cut away! Of course, Pamela knew best how to select and trim blossoms. Years of farming experience had also taught her how to work more efficiently in the field.

I felt like a numskull.

But Pamela paid no mind. She had work to do. With scissors in one hand, she deftly cut one long stem after another, stripping off leaves as she went and adding the stem to her other hand. If a bloom didn’t meet her standards, she snipped it off and moved on to the next one. In no time, Pamela had a heap of flowers for me. “Hold them gently across your arm and try to keep the bottoms even,” she instructed. “When you put them in the bucket, make sure all the stems are in water or the heads will wilt.”

Making my way down the row, I stepped carefully so I wouldn’t bruise flowers in passing. Around me, honeybees helicoptered from bloom to bloom, filling the warm air with the drone of their buzzing. Off in the distance, a Lesser Goldfinch trilled, and overhead, a Black Vulture lazily soared. When a tiny crab spider dangled from a zinnia petal, I smiled. I adore all of nature, even blazing heat and sticky sweat.

“Here, give me your shirt,” Hannah Rose told me when we broke for water. Then, using the water hose, she drenched the shirt, wrung it out and gave it back to me. “Now you’ll stay cool until it dries out.” Gingerly, I tugged it back on. Sure enough, the damp material felt cold against my skin for a long while. Heavenly!

Throughout our mornings together over the course of several weeks, Pamela and I talked, laughed and worked as we moved among the flowers. Once, just after Pamela had handed me a huge bunch of wispy celosia, I had to give them right back. “Something’s inside my shirtsleeve,” I said calmly. Bee, I thought. Wrong. I pulled off the sleeve and found a good-sized grasshopper clinging inside. No big deal. Another time, the farm van got stuck in mud, and a rear tire flung goo all over me. I just shrugged. It’ll wash off. We all laughed.

I felt like a hero.

We shared stories about our kids, news about neighbors, aspirations for the future and favorite books from the past. Pamela asked if I’d ever read A Wrinkle in Time. “No, who’s the author?” I asked, embarrassed by my ignorance. “Madeleine L’Engle. I’ll loan you some of her books,” Pamela offered.

At home, I opened another book by L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, and could barely set it down. Every page challenged and opened my mind to think differently about creativity. I bought my own copy and vowed to keep reading more of her titles. From the library, I borrowed Pat Conroy’s book, My Reading Life, and read how different books, classics and contemporary, had left lasting imprints on his personal and professional life. I decided that I, too, wanted to open myself up to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Wolfe, George MacDonald, Wilkie Collins, Nathaniel Hawthorne, D.H. Lawrence and Beatrix Potter, to name but a few on my list. Right away, I embarked on Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden.

A month later, my stint at the flower farm ended. As expected, the giddiness within me mellowed. But a newfound enthusiasm for words emerged. As I closed yet another L’Engle volume, a deep realization filled me: With every page I turn, I still move among the flowers.

Sheryl Smith-Rodgers, frequent contributor